Science fiction - without apologies and without scrimping on production

By , Robert Dahlin writes a regular column for the monthly Book Review.

There's a new kid in the science fiction and fantasy orbit. Well, the kid isn't new, but his vehicle is. James Frenkel is a younger man than his veteran's experience in publishing SF fantasy suggests, and the new publishing company, launched toward the end of 1983, is his Bluejay Books. Its sole purpose is to print science fiction and fantasy in trade paperback and hardcover editions - and, says Frenkel, he is the only publisher to do this exclusively. All other SF lines are bolstered by mass market paperbacks as well.

There's more that makes Bluejay unique in the SF sphere. Its books are printed on acid-free paper, and the bindings are sewn, not simply glued. Frenkel's intent, he says, is to publish quality books that will have a long life.

All this ado may sound strange to readers who have found that the attraction of science fiction escapes them. But like caviar or escargots, science fiction and fantasy can be acquired tastes, and if you talk to anyone who's hooked, you'll find that he or she can't get enough. SF boosters are noted for an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical, and this is why science fiction and fantasy are frequently trotted out in articles proclaiming a new boom in the field. The New York Times Book Review did so in January.

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However, skeptics should know that any brand of fiction yoking enough readers to support it profitably is probably deserving of more than disdain, and science fiction is in this category. It accounted for considerably better than one-tenth of all US fiction published in 1982, and it has two well-reviewed hardcovers on the country's best-seller lists today: ''The Robots of Dawn,'' by Isaac Asimov, and ''Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern,'' by Anne McCaffrey.

If he has his way, Frenkel's books will one day join such high-flying company. Publishing three books a month, with a couple more creeping in on a seasonal basis, Bluejay is reprinting out-of-print titles and publishing original works. Its first release was nonfiction, although it was closely allied to the field: ''Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard,'' by L. Sprague de Camp, Catherine Crook de Camp, and Jane Whittington Griffin, a hardcover biography of the man who created fantasy hero Conan and who committed suicide at the age of 30. Completing Bluejay's initial books are a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison, a 1954 novel by Edgar Pangborn (with a new afterword by Peter S. Beagle), a 1964 novel by Philip K. Dick (with a new afterword by Thomas M. Disch), and ''The John W. Campbell Awards, Volume 5,'' collecting four new works that its editor, George R.R. Martin, considers the best of the latest crop of short fiction.

A star in Bluejay's new universe, however, is undeniably its February release , ''World's End,'' by Joan D. Vinge. Vinge is one of Frenkel's stellar attractions for several reasons: (1) ''Snow Queen,'' her predecessor to ''World's End,'' won the Hugo Award for best SF novel of the year in 1981; (2) her last book, a storybook version of George Lucas's skyrocket of a film, ''The Return of the Jedi,'' was a No. 1 best seller of a year ago, the first children's book ever to leap to the top of best-seller lists around the country; (3) Vinge is Frenkel's wife.

The couple met when Frenkel was at his previous post, that of science-fiction editor at Dell Books, where he served for five years and a day. Dell, however, wasn't convinced of the sales validity of a science-fiction program, says Frenkel, and after he had battled for years to keep it afloat, the company cut the editor adrift in 1981.

Frenkel says, ''If there had been another science-fiction job open at a publishing house, I would have grabbed at it.'' But there wasn't. Reluctant to leave behind the expertise he'd acquired, he set out to establish a company of his own. It wasn't easy. It took two years to acquire both the financing and a distributor for his books. He found a backer after he found his distributor, St. Martin's Press. Last June, the deals were signed, and the Howard biography was produced and off press, ready to promote at the World Fantasy Convention in October.

Since most of Bluejay's books have been in release for only a matter of months, it's impossible to predict the company's future financial health, but Frenkel projects that they will bringin between $500,000 and $1.25 million in the first year. That's a projection of some spread, but it does suggest that the science-fiction market can be a profitable one for a new publisher, particularly if overhead is kept low (Bluejay exists in two tiny offices housing Frenkel, general manager Joann Hill, and Frank Balazs) and if the books are sufficiently appealing.

Frenkel hopes to contribute to their appeal by offering collector's editions of certain books - limited, signed, slipcased editions with specially commissioned art reprinted on the endpapers - at an elevated price. The collector's edition of ''Dark Valley Destiny'' is $40; the regular bookstore edition is $16.95. ''World's End,'' which is $13.95 in the stores, is also available in a collector's edition at $40.

In addition, Bluejay's special editions, trade paperback versions of classic SF, will never be made available in mass market editions at all, claims Frenkel. He will not sell inexpensive reprint rights and will maintain them in print only in his larger format, higher-priced editions. The next special edition is this month's ''The Stars Are the Styx,'' by SF dean Theodore Sturgeon.

For anyone puzzling over the name of the new company, wondering why it doesn't soar off with something more futuristically motorized, Bluejay was proposed by two people independently. It stuck because one of the suggestions was made by Joan Vinge. She reminded Frenkel that their first names both began with the letter ''J'' and that Frenkel's eyes are blue.

It is frequently said that women writers have brought a strong element of humanism to science fiction, once a male domain interested primarily in hardware. The christening of Bluejay is empirical evidence.

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